Review: Rian Johnson's 'Knives Out' is a Razor-Sharp Murder Mystery
by Adam Frazier
November 22, 2019
Perhaps best known as the writer & director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, filmmaker Rian Johnson got his big start in 2005 with the neo-noir mystery Brick. A hard-boiled detective story in the vein of The Maltese Falcon, Brick won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and paved the way for his sophomore effort, 2008's The Brothers Bloom. The caper comedy-drama, about two sibling con artists, was inspired by Bogdanovich's Paper Moon and David Mamet's heist-thriller, House of Games. For his third film, Johnson continued taking innovative approaches to familiar genres with the twisty, multi-layered 2012 sci-fi Looper. Now, the filmmaker is paying homage to the works of Agatha Christie with Knives Out, a black comedy whodunnit influenced by classic mystery films like Murder on the Orient Express and The Mirror Crack'd.
When the distinguished crime novelist and family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead at his estate the morning after his 85th birthday, the debonair Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is enlisted to investigate. Aided by Lieutenant Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan), the southern-fried private investigator — think Hercule Poirot by way of Foghorn Leghorn — proceeds to interview the Thrombey clan, a gaggle of dysfunctional oddballs played by an all-star ensemble cast: Chris Evans (Avengers: Endgame), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water, Midnight Special), Don Johnson (HBO's Watchmen), Katherine Langford (Netflix's 13 Reasons Why), and Toni Collette (Hereditary).
There's also the devoted staff to question, including Harlan's frazzled housekeeper, Fran (Edi Patterson of HBO's The Righteous Gemstones), and his caretaker, Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas, Blade Runner 2049) — possibly the last person to see him alive. Incapable of lying without losing her lunch, the doe-eyed Marta proves to be a useful partner for Blanc as he sifts through a tangled web of lies to uncover the truth behind Harlan's untimely demise. As the captivating investigation intensifies, the Thrombey family, motivated by greed, bitterness, and mutual suspicion, proceeds to slowly devour one another.
Inspired by movies like Sleuth, Murder by Death, Deathtrap, and Clue, Johnson's Knives Out uses murder-mystery tropes and razor-sharp wit to deliver a thoroughly engaging and hilarious whodunnit about 21st Century social mores. Agatha Christie's stories featured characters that we now think of as caricatures — beleaguered domestics, eccentric detectives, stolid colonels, high-spirited heroines — to talk about British society and class politics. For this film, Johnson uses a modern setting, with modern archetypes, to explore the complicated dynamics and dysfunctions of present-day America.
There's Harlan's grandson, Jacob (Jaeden Martell of It: Chapter One & Chapter Two), a preppy alt-right internet troll who butts heads with his progressive cousin Meg (Langford), a feminist college student who's more aware—and more sensitive—to the world around her. Ransom Thrombey (Evans) is a spoiled, aimless trust fund kid while Marta is the hardworking daughter of undocumented immigrants. Watching these characters bounce off each other is half the fun of Johnson's mystery, and while the movie is never preachy or message-y, there's plenty of meaningful subtext to go along with the lively, superbly delivered text.
Rian Johnson's Knives Out is simply delightful. With its star-studded cast, exquisite production design, and clever wordplay, this whodunnit is one of the most entertaining movies of the year. It's the kind of movie where you can just tell that everyone involved had a total blast making it; the relaxed nature of the set and the enthusiasm for the project give the filmmaking and the performances a confidence and charm that few movies have. The energy created is infectious, making for an absorbing filmgoing experience where you're completely invested in solving the case while taking tremendous satisfaction in watching the assorted weasels, vipers, and sycophants of the Thrombey family get what they deserve. The only thing more satisfying is having a master storyteller like Johnson reveal everything to you in a way that makes you kick yourself because you didn't see it coming from the start.
Adam's Rating: 4.5 out of 5
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